Erica Brown

Aging In Denial

I went to the bakery to place an order for my bubbe’s birthday cake. The baker scribbled the date on his pad, “Whadya want on the cake?” “Something simple would be fine, like ‘Happy 100th Birthday.’” He looked up to see if I was serious. “We’ll make her something really nice.”

One hundred is enough to get the White House to send a letter. One hundred is enough to get people to be friendlier. One hundred is an amazing accomplishment — especially after surviving Auschwitz — but it’s not an accomplishment to her.

It took me a long time to understand Bubbe’s reticence around the party we planned. She loves food. She loves being the center of attention. She loves “speeching.” But she was not happy to turn a 100. When people find out they immediately ask her, “What’s your secret?” If she had a mystical formula, believe me, she would never share it with strangers for free. She could make up something wacky, like an odd food or an exercise with unbelievable powers or maybe even a prayer. Bubbe just shrugs as if she doesn’t understand the question.

It’s not a comprehensible question.

My daughter interviewed her for a college essay on aging. It was a bad idea. Bubbe did not answer one question.

“So how do you feel about getting old?”

“How should I feel?”

She’s not being evasive, I tell my daughter. She’s just not an introspective person. This may just be her secret. She moves on to the next meal and the next TV show and the next day, which looks pretty much like yesterday. When I asked Bubbe recently about her day, she replied, “I did nothing today. I’m lazy.”

“How are you doing?” I ask her nightly.

“I’m vatching TV. I am vatching … ‘Jepady’ then ‘Dance Mit da Stars.’ Then CN.” (This is Bubbe-speak for CNN).

Then we discuss what she ate. “I had a delicious dinner — a can of soup.”

“But it has so much salt. Maybe you shouldn’t eat that stuff, Bubs.”

“It’s salty, but it’s delicious.”

She has to reduce her potassium intake. No more bananas.

“Vat, I ask you, could be bad about a banana?”

The woman is a 100. If she wants a banana, let her have it.

A great societal error is the belief that living long is an accomplishment. It is something you achieve because you want to, because you have a plan. You can pamper your body, exercise, eat right and die in an accident. It will also rain that day. You can beat up on your body, do everything against the books — like eat a banana — and live to a ripe old age. The randomness of the equation makes it no equation at all. A friend asked a relative who was 100 for her secret: “Every year, God forgets me.”

Being that old is not a party — and maybe that’s why Bubbe didn’t want a party. When you are that old most of your friends are not around. People look past you as if you were invisible. If you still have mental clarity, the one thing you know is how much you can’t do anymore. You may still love a party but not a birthday party. My zeide was 95 when he died of Alzheimer’s complications. When he was still lucid, if you asked him how he was, he answered, “How should a piece of junk feel?” Someone asked him what it felt like to kiss Bubbe after being married for 72 years. “Take a bottle of soda. Take off the cap. Let it stay for a few days. That’s what it’s like.”

In her painful memoir, “Blue Nights,” Joan Didion writes, “A doctor to whom I occasionally talk suggests that I have made an inadequate adjustment to aging.

Wrong, I want to say.

In fact I have made no adjustment whatsoever to aging.

In fact I had lived my entire life to date without seriously believing that I would age.”

In Jewish tradition we stand up in the presence of the elderly out of respect and as a way to communicate that we honor the process of aging precisely because we recognize its challenges. We shunt the elderly off in senior centers as if they will not one day be us. We are living longer but not necessarily better lives. We need to create communities that age well together for the sake of our seniors and as an insurance policy for ourselves — so that they, and we, never become invisible.

Erica Brown’s most recent book is “Happier Endings: A Meditation on Life and Death” (Simon and Schuster). Subscribe to her weekly Internet essay at

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).